The History of Our National Anthem


In 1814, Great Britain was again at war with America.  Although the United States had won their independence 29 years earlier, Great Britain was enraged at America’s demands for an independent Canada, as well as America’s friendship and free trade with France.  “There is no public feeling in this country stronger than that of indignation against the Americans,” declared the London Times on April 15, 1814.  Conflict between the two nations had erupted into full-scale war.  The defeat of Napoleon’s “Grand Army” had freed an additional 14,000 veteran British soldiers to join in the battle against America.  By April, Great Britain was well entrenched in America and was winning the war.

The newly arriving soldiers pillaged the East coast of the United States, burning ships at anchor, razing manufacturing plants, torching private homes, and taking what property they could carry away.   On August 24th, after a short battle, British forces set fire to Washington D.C., plundered the city and burned the White House, most of the public buildings, and many private homes.  The British next set their sights on Baltimore, some 30 miles northeast of the nation’s capital.

Baltimore is situated on a beautiful natural harbor on the Patapsco River, which flows into Chesapeake Bay.  Because of its location, Baltimore was a major port city which carried on extensive trade with France.  This was an additional reason why the British particularly disliked the people of Baltimore.  The rag-tag American militia, shopkeepers and farmers built trenches and defended the city from a land invasion.  Fort McHenry guarded the city from a waterborne attack. Flying above the fort was a huge American Flag.  The flag was 30 feet tall, 42 feet long, and made of 400 yards of cloth. The 2 foot tall stars were “spangled” (off-set at different angles so they would appear to twinkle when the flag was blown).   It had been specially made, “so large that the British will have no difficulty in seeing it from a distance.”

On Sunday, September 11th, the first ship in the British fleet arrived at the mouth of the Patapsco River as the people of Baltimore were attending church.  On hearing that the British had arrived, church services adjourned all over the city.  The Reverend John Gruber concluded his services with the prayer, “May the Lord bless King George, convert him and take him to heaven, as we want no more of him.”

At 5:46 AM on September 13th, most of the fleet of 50 British ships opened fire on Fort McHenry.  Their long-range cannons could fire 400 pound cannon balls a distance of 2½ miles with accuracy.  But because the cannons from the fort drove the fleet back to a 4-mile circumference, their cannons were less than accurate.  British gunners hoped to make each shrapnel-filled bomb explode shortly before impact by correctly trimming the length of each fuse.  British cannons shot over 3,000 cannon balls towards Fort McHenry throughout the day, and continued until early the next morning.  Many bombs exploded in midair, far from the fort, others continued burning after impact and were doused with water to keep them from exploding.  Miraculously, four inches of heavy rain also extinguished many of the bombs.  At 1:00 AM, all grew silent.

From the deck of the Minden, Francis Scott Key watched the bombardment of Fort McHenry.  As a young attorney, he was aboard to negotiate the release of prisoners.  From his vantage point, the silence was worse than the bombardment.  An amphibious nighttime assault was ordered and the troops rowed for shore.

The city of Baltimore, as well as the British fleet waited through the long night to see whose flag would be flying.  At day break, a single cannon shot was heard from the fort, signifying that the fort was occupied, but by whom?  Finally, as the early morning mist and smoke began to clear, Key saw through the distance the stars and stripes still flying over the fort and the British rowboats in retreat.  Now confident of a complete American victory, Key took an old letter from his pocket and began to write on the back of the words of The Star-Spangled Banner.  Only four Americans had been killed in the long assault, yet the battle was the turning point of the war.

“Oh, say can you see by the dawn’s early light; what so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming? Whose broad stripes and bright stars thru the perilous fight; o’er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming? And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air; Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.  Oh, say does that Star – Spangled Banner yet wave; o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?”

In 1931, President Herbert Hoover signed a bill declaring this as our national anthem.  Long let it wave!